Stephens: WKU has plenty to play for after first SBC loss

Senior tight end, Jack Doyle, reaches forward to for a touchdown. Doyle has been named this season’s “Mr. Reliable”. Doyle went onto to complete another touchdown during the game.

Brad Stephens

Sometimes it takes some adversity to see how much a team has grown up.

And when Jack Doyle, Willie McNeal and Kawaun Jakes took the podium after WKU’s heartbreaking 43-42 loss to Louisiana-Monroe Saturday, it was evident the Toppers had done some maturing.

Just one year ago, after home losses to Indiana State and Arkansas State, players declined to speak to the media.

That decision’s understandable — telling a group of people with cameras how you feel after a losing a three-and-a-half hour fight can’t be that fun.

But Doyle, Jakes and McNeal, three veterans who’ve been around WKU for a long time, got up and answered every question asked of them.

And with his answer to a question about regrouping from the loss, Doyle, the senior tight end who’s been a team captain since his sophomore year, set the tone for the Toppers.

“It’s up to the seniors to get this team to get over the loss and move on,” Doyle said. “We gotta go play our next game.”

The Toppers (5-2, 2-1 Sun Belt Conference) will be moving on from one of the best football games played at Smith Stadium in recent memory — and a game in which they came out on the losing end.

WKU blew three separate leads — 28-7, 35-28 and 42-35, thanks to several self-inflicted errors.

The refs might’ve blown two separate fourth quarter calls — a Tyree Robinson personal foul and a “he was down” whistle that nullified what could’ve been a game-clinching Kiante Young kick return.

And ULM’s Kolton Browning, the sure-fire Sun Belt Player of the Year, beat the Toppers with his accurate left arm, crafty feet and all-around gutsy quarterbacking.

The Warhawks’ drizzle on WKU’s Homecoming parade culminated into a thunderstorm on the game’s last play.

Down 42-41, ULM called a two-point conversion. Browning took the snap, spun right to elude WKU’s Xavius Boyd and found a receiver in the end zone to give to give the Warhawks a 43-42 overtime win.

With one all-or-nothing play, the Toppers’ Sun Belt title hopes were dealt a big punch to the gut.

“It just hurts,” senior quarterback Jakes said.

Coach Willie Taggart has his “24-hour rule,” which allows players 24 hours to hurt or celebrate after a win or loss.

On Sunday, Taggart tweeted that he was making the executive call to shorten the 24 hours to 18 hours.

His reason? WKU has five games left to determine the outcome of its 2012 season.

The Toppers might be a long shot for the Sun Belt championship, as they’d have to win out and ULM would have to lose two of its last five league games for WKU to win the title.

“It’s out of our hands a little bit,” Doyle said. “But we’re going to take care of what we can control and we’ll see what happens.”

It’s the right attitude at the right time from one of WKU’s senior leaders.

Five games remain for the Toppers, starting with 1-7 Florida International this Saturday.

WKU either is or will be decided favorites in four of them, with a Nov. 17 road game against Louisiana-Lafayette likely being the lone exception.

There’s no reason the Toppers can’t finish the year at least 8-4, if not 9-3 or 10-2, and get to that elusive bowl game.

“I want our guys to understand where we’re at as a football team and all of our goals are still ahead of us,” Taggart said. “We’ve just got to get back to work.”

In past years, during the days of losing streaks and transitions, a tough loss like Saturday’s may have led to a couple of bad hangover losses.

But this WKU team is doing the right thing by treating the ULM game what it is — a bump in the road, not a dead end.